Category Archives: Camden

To Be A Pirate King

After the signing on Saturday, Izzi and I rushed off to complete my pirate costume. Pirate costume? Perhaps I should explain.

You see, on Wednesday, my good chum Tiny Emma, who is well versed in the ways of debauchery, invited me along to an event held by an organisation known as Corset and Diamonds. This, I was told, was a burlesque-and-electro-swing evening themed around Pirates of the Caribbean, which is a film that I understand enjoyed a certain amount of success a few years ago.

Unfortunately, I’m currently rehearsing for a play that is on next week (you should come and see it, it’s going to be awesome) and so the amount of time available to produce a suitable outfit was somewhat limited. So, a certain amount of improvisation was needed. I decided a little research was in order.

Of course, it almost goes without saying that most of what we think of as “piratical” is more-or-less BS, invented by fiction writers, based on misunderstandings and half-truths, reinforced by years of retelling. For -instance, you know the old pirate voice, the “ha-harrr, Jim lad, splice the mainsail, keelhaul the mizzen-mast, belike and by thunder!” accent? That dates all the way back to 1950, derived from Robert Newton’s performance as Long John Silver in Disney’s version of Treasure Island. Now, there was some truth in his performance – he was a Cornishman by birth and based the accent on the sailors he used to see. But the near-universal Mummerset growl of Hollywood movies was nowhere near as prevalent as you might think. Particularly given that so many pirates were, you know, not English.

And you know the Jolly Roger, the black flag with the skull-and-crossbones? Again, nowhere near as common as the movies would have you believe. More common was the plain black flag, or the plain red flag. They both indicated that this ship was not part of any navy and therefore not obliged to follow any niceties of international law, and if you’d like to surrender now then I’m sure you’ll save us all a lot of bother. Most common of all, however, was to simply fly the colours of whatever country you were pretending to be from until the other ship was too near to run. This would arouse less suspicion than having, you know, a flag that basically says “HELLO WE ARE PIRATES” from a distance. Of course, for the pirate with a sense of style, an off-the-peg skull-and-crossbones wouldn’t do, and many prominent buccaneers went with a custom design. I rather like Blackbeard’s one, pictured below. By the way, the red flag was also commonly known as the “jolie rouge,” from which we get the term “Jolly Roger.” So there you have it.

But what about clothes? Your basic pirate costume seems to come in two forms. You’ve either got the foppish Captain Hook-style outfit, very elaborate, lots of brass buttons, or you’ve got the raggedy seadog look.

The reality, in fact, lay somewhere between the two extremes. Pirates did indeed like to dress up, they were basically the pimps of the sea in sartorial terms. But commonly, the elaborate clothes they were able to get were stolen. So you might get a seadog acting the foppish macaroni in the coat several sizes too large, tottering along in shoes a size too small.

However, your average sailor was also pretty handy with a needle and thread – they had to be, with sail repairs to be made. So they could rustle up their own clothes if needs be. And if a recent haul included silk, lace or other fancy cloth, those clothes could be extremely… do people still say “bling?” Am I using that word correctly?

So the conclusions I drew:

1. There is a lot of freedom, the only limits on an authentic costume being period accuracy.

2. The party is tomorrow and I don’t have much money, throw something together.

So, what I went with:

Shirt: They all laughed at me when I bought a frilly white shirt at the Stables in Camden, but WHO’S LAUGHING NOW? It came from that basement stall run by that rather theatrical-looking woman.

Trousers: I don’t own any breeches, sadly. There is a shop in Camden that has a lot of theatrical costume, including several pairs of breeches, but these were around the £35-40 mark, which was a bit much for me. However, in the Paws charity shop in Tooting I found a pair of black trousers. I hacked the legs off below the knee to create a raggedy look that might, if you didn’t look too closely, pass for breeches.

Waistcoat: I have a rather elaborate and shiny red waistcoat with brass and mother-of-pearl buttons. The style is a bit too modern for the Golden Age of Piracy, but with it worn open this wasn’t too noticeable. Just the sort of thing a dandy sailing lad might steal from a fat unarmed merchantman.

Footwear: If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from years of amateur dramatics, it’s that if you wear a pair of breeches and a pair of long socks, nobody can tell you’re not wearing stockings. Shoe-wise, I just wore my trusty black Oxford brogues. Ideally I’d have liked a buckle, but I didn’t have any.

Headgear: At Izzi’s suggestion, I picked up a black bandanna from a stall in Oxford Street. I also managed to get a brown tricorn at So High Soho on Berwick Street which looked a lot more elaborate than its price tag would suggest. The shop was closing for the day, but they let me dash in, which was cool of them. Incidentally, do you have any idea how hard it is to get a decent pirate hat that is both affordable and doesn’t look crap? Very hard.

Accessorising:  Primark really came through here. I found a cheapo pendant for £1.50 in the Tooting branch along with a battered-looking brown belt which was free because the guy on the till forgot to ring it through har har. I also added a couple of pocket watches and two more pendants to give the whole ensemble that more-plunder-than-sense look. The finishing touch was a sword from Escapade in Camden.

I met up with Anna K and we made our way to the party. I think the outfit was pretty successful, it was reacted to favourably at the event. It also seemed to make the hobo outside Colliers Wood Tube Station quite angry, but I don’t speak derelict so I couldn’t tell you why. On the way back I had a number of drunks shouting “Captain Jack Sparrow!” which would be quite witty, only I actually was deliberately dressed as a pirate, so not really.

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Filed under 18th century, Bloomsbury, Booze, Camden, Clubbing, Current events, Fashion and trends, Film and TV, History, Literature, London, Markets, Shopping, Soho, The City, Weird shops, West End

New York, Paris, Colliers Wood

I’d be the first to admit that, as guys go, I have baggage. That’s probably because the baggage I have takes the form of a stupendously awesome suitcase. Witness.

I picked it up today in Camden. I’ve wanted a suitcase like this for ages – a proper old-fashioned, battered leather thing with faded travel stickers. I do have a tin trunk from when my grandparents, ma and uncles moved to Britain from Kenya, but it’s needed to hold my grandpa’s judge wig (long story) and in any case is far too heavy and awkwardly-shaped for everyday use. Cases matching that description tend to go for big bucks, so when I saw this one for £15, I snapped it up in accordance with my “jetset lifestyle, Ryanair budget” mode of living.

I love the paraphernalia of bygone travel, the days of named trains and ocean liners. These days, nobody cares about long-distance travel. People get on a plane to the other side of the world as if they’re not flying at 500 freakin’ miles per hour halfway around the planet, and I think that’s just sad. The days of savouring the journey are long gone. No doubt I’m looking at it all with rose-tinted spectacles, and back then people were sick of taking six weeks to get from Britain to Australia by boat, but… well. There’s just a part of me that wishes there was a bit more effort required to get to another continent, that’s all.

So, what voyages has this suitcase been on? Let’s take a closer look at some of the labels. Apparently it belonged to someone in Holland Park, so for me in Colliers Wood that’s already pretty exotic.

The sticker on the right is pretty self-explanatory. It indicates that the owner travelled on the overnight train that ran from Victoria in London to Gare du Nord in Paris. Named trains are all but extinct these days, mostly existing as a nostalgia thing where they haven’t been abandoned altogether, but the time was when there were dozens operating on British Railways, with names that ranged from the thrilling (the Red Dragon, the White Rose, the Silver Jubilee, the Royal Scot, the Cornish Riviera) to the downright peculiar (the Flying Scotsman, the Master Cutler). Don’t they just make you want to abandon the morning commute and leap on board?

The Night Ferry was not the only international service on BR, there was also the Golden Arrow (also to Paris) as well as a number that only went as far as the port. However, thanks to its specially-built coaches, the Night Ferry was the only train to physically get on the boat without passengers having to disembark. The service lasted until 1980, and would eventually be made entirely redundant by the opening of the Channel Tunnel. Yr. Humble Chronicler was actually at the opening of the Channel Tunnel, and once again it amazes me how un-amazed people were at the fact that there was a freakin’ tunnel to France. I mean, you could walk to Europe for the first time since the Ice Age! Is that not just incredible? I think I need to lie down.

Oh wait, no time for that, here’s the other label. Ah, now, this is interesting. It’s not very clear from this shot, but this case was taken from New York on the RMS Mauretania. If you’re not familiar with ocean liners, you probably know that name from the film Titanic, in which it is mentioned by Kate Winslet’s character. That was the first Mauretania, which was the biggest and fastest liner in the world when built. This one was technically the third ship of that name, the second being a steamer to the Isle of Wight given that name until the completion of the new liner. Apparently this unusual measure was to prevent a rival shipping line from stealing the name and therefore the reputation of the old ship from Cunard White Star.

The third Mauretania was launched in 1938. She briefly ran from London to New York, and in so doing became the largest ship ever to navigate the Thames. When war broke out, she was requisitioned as a troop ship and repainted a drab grey. During this period, she had several exciting adventures, including setting a speed record between Australia and South Africa, sailing right around the world and fleeing attacks by U-boats.

Her postwar career was, alas, not quite so spectacular. She worked the route from Southampton to New York without any particular hitches, but set no more records. It was during this period, in 1958, that my case took its trip in her hold. By the 1960s, however, she was looking distinctly old-fashioned and at the end of 1965 she was broken up.

Four years later, the Boeing 747 would take to the sky and at that stage, I think we can safely say that the era was at an end.

Still, you’ve got to admit it’s a cool suitcase.

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Filed under 20th Century, Camden, Fashion and trends, History, London, Markets, Port of London, Thames, Transport

Thomas Willson and the Pyramid of Death

As I think I’ve mentioned before, one of the problems London faced as it expanded in the nineteenth century was the issue of where to bury the dead. There were just too many stiffs for the earth to hold. One churchyard in Holborn had a ground level twelve feet above that of the surrounding area, due to the sheer number of corpses crammed therein (and “crammed” really is the word). While the transmission of disease was not yet fully understood, people did have a dim awareness that corpse-goo was leaking into London’s wells, and this was almost certainly a Bad Thing from a hygiene perspective.

Obviously, there was only so much that could be done with the existing burial grounds. Cremation was out of the question, due to the Christian belief that the body had to be whole for the Day of Judgment (no heaven for you, amputees!). Christopher Wren had proposed the establishment of cemeteries outside of the city – one of a number of modernising improvements that were turned down by the Corporation of London following the Great Fire in 1666.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the attitude was starting to shift. After all, other countries had successfully built cemeteries on the outskirts of cities, and London really was getting very smelly. While most ideas proposed were along the lines of a sort of landscape garden – basically our modern idea of a cemetery – the architect Thomas Willson had a slightly more ambitious plan, which he put forward in 1829.

To understand the background to this, you need to know a bit about the fashion for Egyptiana that came about in the 1820s. It began in 1821, with an exhibition of Egyptiana by an archaeologist named Giovanni Battista Belzoni.

Belzoni was, in scholarly terms, a crap archaeologist. Even in the 19th century, many historians didn’t hold him in high regard. His methods of excavation consisted of going into a place, grabbing all the treasure he could and then buggering off. He was sort of the Indiana Jones of his day. Nevertheless, many of his treasures ended up in the British Museum.

His exhibition of Egyptian finds in Piccadilly created a sensation. This was the era when Gothic fiction was still very popular, and the macabre fascination with death among the Londoners of the time fitted in well with the burial culture of Ancient Egypt. As a result, a kind of Egypt-mania arose in the city.

So in a sense, it wasn’t at all surprising that Willson should suggest the construction of a pyramid to house the dead. The location he suggested was atop Primrose Hill, now a well-known beauty spot a short distance from Chalk Farm.

This would have been a truly spectacular landmark, had it actually been built. The base would have been the size of Russell Square and it would have been taller than St Paul’s Cathedral. There would have been 94 storeys and capacity to hold up to five million corpses. Steam-powered lifts would have been used to access the many, many catacombs therein, although construction would have been of suitably ancient-looking granite over a brick shell.

Such was Willson’s optimism that he formed a Pyramid General Cemetery Company in which people could invest. His profit projections were optimistic – the projected cost would have been £2,500 (which, in modern money and adjusting for inflation, is quite a lot) and the ultimate profit, he estimated, would be £10,764,000. Furthermore, he thought it would not only be a practical way of dealing with the problems of the big city, but he also saw it as a tourist attraction for the morbid folk of the time – more profit to the Company, one assumes.

Sadly (perhaps), the scheme didn’t go ahead. Perhaps it was too radical. Perhaps people got the wrong end of the stick when Willson asked them to invest in a “pyramid scheme.” In any case, the concept was turned down in favour of more conventional cemetery schemes. All was not lost for Willson, however, and he later found himself on the Board of Directors for the General Cemetery Company, which would construct the burial grounds at Kensal Green. 

Frankly, I don’t think I’d have liked such a monument. If you look at the photo above, you can see how high above the city Primrose Hill is, and I think a giant granite memento mori looming over the West End would be a little offputting. But then, I’m not a nineteenth century emo.

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Filed under 19th century, Buildings and architecture, Camden, Environment, Fashion and trends, History, London, Notable Londoners, tourism

What’s wrong with hipsters?

You see a lot of them in London. Shoreditch and Hoxton are where they’re most prevalent, but Hackney, Soho, Camden, Islington and Fitzrovia can all boast plenty. Even dear old Wandsworth has been invaded. Find anywhere with an art school and you’ll find a few of them hanging around. If you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about hipsters.

Now, hipsters get a lot of stick these days. As subcultures go, they’re more reviled than goths, geeks and hippies combined. But what exactly is a hipster? This is where people seem to run into trouble.

A hipster, it seems, is someone who takes pride in being different from the crowd. Nothing wrong with that, surely? I mean, who wouldn’t want to be seen as an individual? Ah, hold on, looks like I missed the point. The point is that the hipster is someone who takes pride in the difference itself – difference is what they cultivate. The problem arises from the fact that the difference manifests itself in the same clothing , hair and affectations as every other hipster, resulting in a kind of uniform. And the pride manifests itself in smugness.

The ire towards hipsters is not derived from the fact that they are eclectic and different, so much as that they think they are eclectic and different. Ironically, if someone genuinely was eclectic and different, they probably wouldn’t be classed as a hipster.

The look is fairly easy to identify – NHS glasses, lumberjack shirt, skinny jeans, keffiyeh, maybe some sort of woolly hat. And stupid hair. Basically, if you see a haircut and think, “That looks stupid,” you’ve probably found yourself a hipster. There may be a scraggly beard attached, if scraggly is even a word (I don’t think it is). If you trawl Topman, you can probably catch several.

Interestingly, the reputation of the hipster as less “trend setter/social rebel” and more “rich, middle-class, self-important, unoriginal snob in uniform” means that now, about the most insulting thing you can say to a hipster is that they are, in fact, a hipster. By labelling them a hipster, you effectively call them exactly the opposite of what a hipster desires to be. Some commentators have even gone so far as to suggest that by their very existence, hipsters have destroyed the meaning of cool.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but I do think the hipsters may be an interesting (although it goes against the hipster way to admit to being interested in anything) by-product of globalisation. With minor variations, hipsters may be found all over the world (as the Independent article above notes). As so many of the major clothing stores are multinational if not worldwide, there’s no need to hipsters to mix and match to achieve a look – they can buy the whole thing down their local high street. Head into Top Shop or Uni Qlo or – if you’re poor – Primark or H&M.

Primark. I think my image researcher may have made a mistake.

Basically, Westfield should see you alright. Interesting fact: Uni Qlo is a Japanese term derived from the English “eunuch clothes.” [NOTE FROM LAWYERS: No it is not]

So what’s the solution? Well, if you want to be unique and different, try actually being unique and different. Try enjoying what you like, rather than what the Internet and adverts tell you you should like. Wear clothes that suit you that you picked out yourself – instead of going for a charity shop look, try going to an actual charity shop. Listen to music you’ve found that you like, and if it goes mainstream, well, that’s just a sign of your good taste.
Also, stop wearing those plastic glasses, you look ridiculous.

Further Viewing
Being a dickhead’s cool, apparently. Thanks to Sazzi for alerting me to this.

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Filed under Arts, Camden, Fashion and trends, Hackney, Islington, London, Music, Only loosely about London, Shopping, Shoreditch, West End

‘Til you drop

I’ve had an utterly boring weekend where I saw no one, went nowhere (nowhere special, anyway) and did nothing (useful). Yesterday consisted of a trip to Kingston and today of a trip to Camden followed by a long and pointless walk from Angel to Kennington via a circuitous route. I’d love to say that I reached some sort of exciting conclusion or saw something really interesting, but no.

Compounding matters somewhat is a delay in payment of my wages, which means I’m subsisting at poor person level (or at least, the middle-class London version of “poor”) until Wednesday. Not necessarily a problem, except my birthday falls on Tuesday and I’d quite like to enjoy myself a bit. Having said that, for possibly the first time I’m utterly indifferent to the day, possibly because it’s one of those non-milestone years that serves only to remind me that I’m edging ever-closer to 30 and am notably not a multi-millionnaire yet.

So you’ll have to forgive me for the fact that this entry may come across as slightly bad-tempered. There’s just something about wandering around shopping centres filled with people who are younger or richer or both-er than you that depresses. I hope I’m not turning into one of those Grumpy Old Men, because 28 is far too young for that sort of thing. Not to mention the fact that I hate this industry that’s been built around whining about everything. Don’t get me wrong, I like satire – I love satire. But honestly, if I see one more comedy programme about a writer who’s depressed because his housekeeper isn’t up to scratch and the BBC feel his latest script needs work, I’m going to kidnap the author and drop them in Afghanistan just to give them some fucking perspective.

Wait, that entire rant makes me a hypocrite. Damn.

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Filed under Camden, Current events, Not even trying to be on-topic, Only loosely about London, Rambling on and on, Randomness

Withnail and Me

In my last post I briefly alluded to my all-time favourite movie, Withnail & I, and its central role in my standard cure for a hangover. And I thought it was high time I devoted a full entry to it. After all, it’s a pretty London-y movie, even bearing in mind that much of it is set in Penrith.

Withnail (right) and I (left)It centres around two out-of-work actors living in bohemian squalor in Camden at the tail end of the 1960s. Marwood (the "I" of the title, played by Paul McGann) is our narrator, seguing into philosophical monologues and paranoid flights of fancy. Meanwhile, the flamboyant and self-destructive Withnail (Richard E. Grant in what is possibly still his most famous role) dreams of greater things while drinking literally anything he can lay his hands on. In an effort to drag themselves out of a rut, they charm Withnail's Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) into lending them his cottage in the Lake District. Upon arriving, they discover that the weather is terrible, the cottage is a wreck and the locals hate them. And things kinda go downhill from there."This is a far superior drink to meths. The wankers don't drink it because they can't afford it."Oh, and it's a comedy. Now, if you've not seen the film, it doesn't exactly sound like the most life-affirming of movies. Actually, it sounds like a recipe for a bleak Swedish arthouse movie down at the Curzon. There's very little plot. Such plot as there is mainly serves to hang the dialogue off.But what dialogue. It must be the most quotable film of all time. Almost every line is a quote. Get two fans of Withnail & I together and expect upwards of a quarter of an hour of "We've come on holiday by mistake!" and "Hair are your aerials. They transmit the signals from the cosmos. This is the reason why bald men are so uptight."Ralph Brown as Danny the Dealer. He played basically this exact same character again in Wayne's World 2.Much of it hinges on the performances. Grant and McGann have never been better - Richard E. Grant seems to have been practically born into the role (although, ironically, he is and was a teetotaller, making research for the role a very uncomfortable process). Ralph Brown also deserves praise for his performance as the merchandise-addled dealer Danny, a role he's unofficially reprised at least twice (in Wayne's World 2 and Coronation Street - there may be other instances).The direction is also highly effective. It's fair to say that the recreation of 1960s Camden, filmed in 1980s Notting Hill, is perhaps not the most convincing illusion - for one thing, the urban grotesquerie that we call the Westway is very visible in a number of shots. However, the atmosphere of grime and decrepitude is magnificently captured. This is helped in no small part by the evocative choice of period soundtrack. Procul Harem's 'A Whiter Shade of Pale,' Jimmy Hendrix' cover of 'All Along the Watchtower' and the Beatles' 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' all contribute to an air of melancholy small-scale apocalypse around the characters. The latter song is particularly noteworthy - Beatles songs are not often used in film soundtracks, other than cover versions, but George Harrison's Handmade Films put up funding for this baby.Interestingly, and perhaps somewhat disturbingly, the film was inspired by real life. Writer and director Bruce Robinson based Withnail on an actor with whom he lived for a time, Vivian MacKerrell. Several incidents, including the notorious lighter fluid-drinking scene pictured above, were based on real life exploits. Robinson has said that while he never directly quoted MacKerrell, the dialogue is very MacKerrell-esque. MacKerrell, sadly, died of throat cancer. This wasn't helped by his insistence on keeping up the Withnail lifestyle even after starting treatment. One of his quotes from that period was, "There's as much iron in a pint of Guinness as in a portion of spinach. I'd be a fool not to take advantage of that fact.""I want something's flesh!"

An early draft of the screenplay, incidentally, ended on a similarly bleak note, with Withnail committing suicide by shotgun.

The film is, perhaps, the perfect cult movie. Not hugely known, particularly outside the UK, but with an absolutely devoted following. As I mentioned above, fans can be instantly identified by their ability to re-enact entire scenes. Most frighteningly, there’s a Withnail & I drinking game, which consists of matching the characters drink for drink. Yr. Humble Chronicler does not advocate this particular brand of hedonism, given that it’ll pretty much kill you within the first half hour.
I think what makes a cult film, really, is that you should feel that in some way, the film is speaking to you personally. As if you get this film in a way that most people don’t. For me, Withnail & I is such a great film because it almost feels as if the film gets me, rather than vice versa. And there’s no better situation to appreciate that feeling than when in the grip of a murderous hangover at 11.00 on a Sunday morning. Try it yourself.